A masterpiece that loses some luster upon approach
Enslaved is one of the most frustrating games I have played in quite some time. Not because it is a bad game, quite the contrary, it is one of the most engaging and interesting games to come out this year. What really bothered me about Enslaved were the consistent technical problems that I encountered, ranging from small and excusable to utterly distracting. The game has huge ambitions, both technically and from a story telling aspect, but comes just short of achieving what could have been a masterpiece. It is sad to not see Enslaved reach the technical quality that is present in almost every other aspect of the game, but it is difficult to have this one issue tarnish the gem that this product really is. This is a new leap in storytelling and character interaction, and should cause other developers to stop and take a few a notes.
What separates Enslaved from other action games to come out in recent memory is the dynamic and gripping tale it weaves. The game centers on Monkey and Trip, two clashing personalities who have recently escaped impending servitude. After crash landing from an airship, trip fastens a slave headband on Monkey, gaining control of the brutish figure. She can cause him pain if he disobeys any order, and if Trip dies, Monkey dies. He is forced to be a body guard of sorts as Trip travels across a post apocalyptic New York in hopes to return to her home. As you would guess, this causes an uneasy “partnership” between the protagonists that provides interesting dialogue and problem solving, with Trip taking care of all things technological and Monkey bringing the combat and tactical prowess.
The game only focuses on two characters (a third does appear named Piggsy, but he is not seen until later chapters), but the interaction between Monkey and Trip is consistently witty and entertaining, rarely missing a beat. What truly brings the conversations to life is what Ninja Theory has accomplished with the voice work and motion capture. If you enjoyed how this was handled in Heavenly Sword, the developer’s last game, you will marvel at the cinema quality acting that is ever present through your journey and really see how far Ninja Theory has come. I was always excited to see the next cut scene, and found myself enjoying a simple conversation around a camp fire between Monkey and Trip more than I ever thought I could.
Yet here is where a problem pops up: the story telling is beyond what the game play has to offer. This is no Devil May Cry. If anything, the game barrows heavily from one my favorite titles from the last generation, Beyond Good and Evil. Both had the leading character wield a staff to ward off small groups of enemies and used dynamic camera angles to increase the action. And once again, the game play was not the draw of that title either. Yet Beyond Good and Evil had the length and environmental variety to distract you from the sub-par action. Enslaved does not. The game clocks in around 7-9 hours, and is not afraid to dish out battle after battle with the mechs that patrol the landscape. In no way is the combat bad; it is a standard light attack and heavy attack affair with solid upgrade aspects added in as well as small shooter components. But during every combat scenario, I found myself wishing to witness more of that character interaction and story development that had grabbed my attention from the beginning.
Enslaved also contains a fair amount of platforming, a la Uncharted 2. Monkey is a very strong and acrobatic hero, jumping and swinging his way around the urban jungle. In some cases, you will even have to carry trip from a dangerous situation or throw her across a large gap. But don’t panic, this is not some lame escort mission. Trip can fight back at times, but during combat scenes she is usually far enough out of the way that you will never have to think about her having a health bar or getting taken away by mechs. Even with the large city, this is a very linear game, not allowing you to move away from the directed path without being killed by Trip since she will believe you are trying to escape. This makes searching for the few collectables difficult, as you are constantly in fear of going too far away from the objective and not coming back. This is an interesting mechanic at the beginning of the game, but soon loses its luster as the bond between Monkey and Trip grows tighter. I found myself wondering why she was activating the slave band to take me out if we just had a deep conversation and was now invested in her journey back home.
I really wish I could disclose more of the story and twists that still have me asking myself questions, but what kind of reviewer would I be then? Besides, I couldn’t spoil the reason to experience Enslaved. What can be said about the journey to the west is that it is like no other post apocalyptic world you have ever traveled through. The dismantled buildings are overtaken by vegetation, and instead of grays and browns being the dominant colors, there is a colorful environment around every corner. I dare you to not stop and appreciate what can be done with today’s technology, as almost any clip from Enslaved can be mistaken for a painting.
And once again we are on the subject of technology. Yes, Enslaved is a beautiful game both artistically and graphically, but it seems to come at a price. In close to every change of camera angle during a cut scene, I experienced a broad range of texture popping and mapping. At one point, an entire building decided to appear out of thin air and then get more and more detailed as time went on. At first I thought it was just a small issue, but by the end I was scratching my head and wondering if anyone had even played through the final product or saw these glitches as such an annoyance as I did. Why distract your audience from such an unforgettable tale?
Even with these technical issues, Enslaved should not be ignored. For me, the action platformer has recently had too much of an emphasis on the combat and not enough on story development and traversal. Although the combat somewhat suffers for it, the focus is put on the engaging story and intricate character development this time, and it pays off. Efforts such as this should be rewarded, and I would love to see how much further Ninja Theory can go with their vision. It may not be perfect, but Enslaved scratches an itch that I didn’t know I had, and will now be the golden standard for story telling in my mind.